As the Desert Ridge Jaguars have embarked on yet another football season, their experienced offensive line has been navigating each week with heavy hearts.
The season started in a somber way, as beloved offensive line coach Joel Reichert passed away suddenly in June from a heart attack. He had a special bond with the program and especially the offensive line.
The 44-year-old built relationships with the group, the type that could not be replaced.
“We play for coach,” said all-state wrestler and starting guard Nate Mesa.
The Jaguars offensive line hopes to honor their late coach with their work ethic on and off the field. The team developed an exceptionally tight-knit relationship with coach Reichert. He had a tremendous impact on the players' football careers and was beloved by students on the field or in his social studies class.
Despite his absence, the offensive line consists of a versatile group that has become one of the backbones of the team. The group is headlined by Washington commit Lance Holtzclaw, who has 10 career sacks playing outside linebacker on defense and has shined on the offensive line as an extra blocker when he is not playing wide receiver.
Along with Holtzclaw, players such as Meza and 6-foot-5 Greg Bienvenue have also helped anchor the group. But the unsung leader is 260-pound senior Alec Pier, whose football knowledge has earned him a significant level of trust from coaches to make him responsible for the assignment of all the other players along the offensive line.
“I'm getting to know the game better, knowing what to do off the ball, who my assignment is, and what everyone else's assignment is,” Pier said.
Meza, a 5-foot-11, 275-pounder, is the starting right guard for the Jaguars. The senior plays both ways and said he loves to pull and hit linebackers.
Yet, Meza also enjoys getting in the backfield and causing chaos in the opposing team's run and pass game. He had two sacks in a recent game against Cesar Chavez and several quarterback hurries as he showcased his pass-rush ability.
Many of those skills are ones he learned from Reichert, which have made it an honor for him to utilize them in games on Friday nights. Especially knowing his wife, Lisa, and two sons are often in attendance. One of his sons is currently a freshman at Desert Ridge.
Even with his family there, however, Reichert’s absence is felt at all times. His personality, aggressiveness and the overall love he had for his players is something Meza and the rest of the offensive line were reluctant to talk about. The pain, even now four months later, is still fresh.
"Coach had such an impact on all of our games," Meza said.
From the age of 12, Meza has been an all-state wrestler who won a state championship in the eighth grade. He’s used those skills acquired on the mat in football, and the transition has gone well.
“Wrestling helps me a lot on the field, it helps with the conditioning,” Meza said. “I am still able to tackle and hit hard late in the fourth quarter. My footwork and flexibility improved thanks to wrestling.”
On the other side of the line, 15-year-old Bienvenue is a raw, long-armed player who flashes brilliance in both games and practice.
The 6-foot-5, 260-pound tackle is described as an athletic freak by his peers and coaches. He understands that experience is the best way to get better and is always willing to put in the work.
“They have been on me about certain things, schoolwork definitely about watching film and studying my plays and getting better every day,” Bienvenue said.
Like his teammates, Bienvenue had a special bond with Reichert. They’ve found solace in one another to continue to work through the pain from his unexpected death.
Regardless of whether it is a film session, game, practice, or day-to-day life the entire unit works to honor their late coach. Holtzclaw honors Reichert by putting “RIP COACH R” in his Instagram biography. Others have their own way of paying homage to their late coach.
While to them it may seem like a small token, they know doing anything in his honor means a lot to his family. They enjoy them on the sideline. Often, they have taken them under their wings.
Afterall, that’s what Reichert would’ve wanted.
“It's amazing to see his kids on the sideline being able to teach them the lessons that he taught us,” Meza said.
Daniel Pike is a sports journalism student at Arizona State University covering Desert Ridge High School athletics.